Higher education’s ‘to-do’ list — the consequences of coronavirus

For U.S. colleges and universities, COVID-19 may well pose far greater, and in some cases far different, challenges than the Great Recession.

The coronavirus pandemic, like the Great Recession before it, has driven endowments and fundraising down and financial aid costs up. But the pandemic has also forced colleges to shutter their campuses, send students home and convert classes into hastily generated forms of distance learning. Research has slowed or stopped because faculty cannot access their offices, laboratories, and libraries. Residential colleges have refunded large sums in housing and dining rebates and incurred substantial costs to transition to online instruction. Across the country, colleges are canceling or curtailing summer programs, losing in the aggregate hundreds of millions of dollars.

Administrators, faculty, and the vast majority of students and their parents hope — but cannot be certain — that campuses throughout the country will open in the fall. If they don’t, some colleges will almost certainly go out of business, and all will suffer lasting harm.

Even if students return as scheduled, colleges and universities will have to address a daunting “new normal.” Here are four of the biggest challenges they – and we – will face:

Higher financial aid costs: During the Great Recession, the number of undergraduates and graduate students applying for financial aid increased dramatically, along with the amount of money each student received. Between 2008-09 and 2009-10, for example, the average grant per undergraduate increased by about 22 percent. Colleges, universities, and the federal government picked up about 70 percent of the tab; loans from the federal government also increased substantially.

Given the unprecedented number of Americans who have already applied for unemployment and the likelihood that the economy will not return to full strength for some time, perhaps not until a vaccine is available, the increase in financial aid costs is likely to be at least as large, if not larger, than it was during the Great Recession. And it is by no means certain that the federal government will pitch in as it did in 2009 and 2010. The vast majority of colleges and universities may lack the resources to serve as engines of equal opportunity, making it hard for talented young men and women from economically disadvantaged families to matriculate without incurring a crushing debt burden.

Less state aid: Higher education is the third-largest category in state budgets, behind K-12 education and Medicaid. But state aid to colleges and universities took a nose-dive during the Great Recession and never recovered. Except for a handful of states, spending per student in public colleges and universities, adjusted for inflation, remains far below pre-recession levels. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is among the first, but surely not the last, governor to announce that the pandemic might force massive cuts in his state’s 2020-21 budget. If past is prologue, that funding will not be restored any time soon.

Fewer international students: Since 2008, the number of international students matriculating at American colleges and universities has increased dramatically. In 2019, over 430,000 international students were enrolled as undergraduates, with China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada the leading suppliers. Over 12,000 international students sought professional degrees in law, business, engineering, and other fields; more than 132,000 were enrolled in Ph.D. programs.

These students make up 10 percent or more of matriculants in hundreds of regional institutions, liberal arts colleges, and research universities. On more than a few campuses, the percentage exceeds 20 percent. With the exception of doctoral students, the vast majority pay full tuition, making them a vitally important, perhaps irreplaceable, revenue source. The doctoral students, most of whom receive fellowships, play a critical role in university teaching and research, especially in economics, computer science, and the physical and natural sciences.

Even before the pandemic, competition for international students was intensifying, in part because of the growth of first-rate universities in their home countries. With travel restrictions, visa issues, and fears of being far from home, the spread of COVID-19 may make it far harder to keep the pipeline open.

More spending on health and wellness: Since the Great Recession, spending on health, especially on mental health, has been one of fastest-growing items in many college and university budgets. With the pandemic, stress, depression, and attempted suicides are climbing quickly, along with student demands for greater and more immediate access to therapists. And colleges and universities may feel compelled to add new services, such as coronavirus testing. As they do so, they may be forced to re-think the scale and scope of their responsibility for student health.

These challenges do not, of course, exhaust the “to-do list” for colleges and universities.

To cite one final example, COVID-19 has forced a national experiment in online education. In the short term, the move to remote learning has laid bare its deficiencies and reinforced the value and importance of the residential liberal arts model. But if colleges are forced to continue remote instruction next year, they may inadvertently jump-start a future few of them want.

A crisis, we are by now used to hearing, is a terrible thing to waste. One thing is certain: those of us in higher education have our work cut out for us.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.

David Wippman is the President of Hamilton College.


Tags Andrew Cuomo College Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 distance learning Education Higher education in the United States International student Public university Student exchange Student financial aid

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More Education News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video